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Gov. Wolf, Levine now advocate wearing masks when leaving house to slow coronavirus spread

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In a change from previous suggestions since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday has asked all Pennsylvanians to wear a mask or bandanna when leaving their house.

“Wearing a mask will help us cut down the possibility that we might be infecting an innocent bystander, like that grocery store cashier or the pharmacist, or someone stocking shelves. These folks are keeping us alive by getting us the supplies we need. We owe it to them to do everything we can to keep them safe. Right now, that means wearing a mask,” Wolf said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not officially made this suggestion, but Wolf said universal masking is expected to be recommended by the CDC soon.

“In Pennsylvania, we want to be ahead of the nation in slowing the spread of COVID-19,” Wolf said.

State Department of Health Secretary Rachel Levine said people should not use a surgical mask or an N95 mask, because first responders and health care professionals need those. Use a cloth or homemade mask, or a bandanna, Wolf and Levine said.

“A mask isn’t a pass to go back to work or to go visit friends, or to go out and socialize. A mask is one more tool in our toolbox to protect ourselves against the spread of COVID-19,” she said.

She said scarves are also a potential possibility for protection.

Levine said if you are truly going to be alone when going out, such as hiking or running where you won’t encounter anyone else, a mask isn’t necessary.

Both Wolf and Levine continued to emphasize, as they have in every public comment session that they have held in recent weeks, that staying at home is the best way to prevent the spread, and Pennsylvanians should ask themselves if leaving the house is absolutely necessary. The entire state is under a stay-at-home order, meaning Pennsylvanians should only leave the house for absolutely necessary things, such as food and medicine.

Levine said the push for masks doesn’t mean the dynamics of the spread has changed.

“What’s changed is the views of the public health community,” she said.

“Because homemade masks protect everyone else from the droplets created by the wearer, it is important that as many people as possible wear these masks when leaving their homes. This helps prevent those who may be infectious but are only mildly symptomatic or not symptomatic from spreading the virus to others in the community. Everyone should remember the phrase ‘my mask protects you, your mask protects me,’” guidance on the state Department of Health website says.

Toomey responds

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, started advocating for wearing masks last weekend, and since then momentum seems to have grown for doing so.

In a statement issued Friday after Wolf's comments, Toomey said: “Earlier this week, I urged the Wolf administration to update state guidelines and encourage all Pennsylvanians to wear cloth masks or facial barriers if they must leave their homes. With the CDC poised to announce new guidelines on this issue, I am pleased that the governor has taken this action. Wearing a cloth mask when in public will limit transmission of the virus, which can be spread through saliva emitted in a cough, sneeze, or even when speaking and breathing. Put simply, my mask protects you, and your mask protects me."

Toomey said he has had conversations with Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC, and Dr. Jay Butler, deputy director for infectious diseases of the CDC. He also spoke directly with President Donald Trump to encourage the CDC to update its guidance.  

Best practices for masks

The best practices for making and wearing fabric or cloth masks include:

• Consider buying materials online to avoid exposure in public places.

• Purchase masks made by small businesses, saving medical masks for health care workers.

• Before putting on a mask, clean hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.

• The mask should fit snugly around the mouth and nose.

• If the mask has a metal wire it should be fitted snuggly to the bridge of the nose.

• Avoid touching the mask while using it, if you do wash your hands with soap and water or alcohol-based hand rub.

• Made out of two layers of tightly woven 100 percent cotton fabric.

• Be discarded or washed after every use.

• Should not be worn damp or when wet from spit or mucus.

• To remove the mask, remove it from behind. Do not touch the front of mask.

• The wearer should immediately wash their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds after removing the mask.

Making a mask at home

To make a mask at home, the materials need are fabric (100 percent cotton is most effective, fabric ties, scissors and a sewing machine or a needle and thread.

• Measure and cut two pieces of fabric in a rectangle pattern to fit snugly around the face (size 12 inches by 6 inches is standard for adults).

• Tightly sew both layers together on all edges.

• Cut fabric ties to fit around the ears.

• Sew the ties to the insides of the mask on the smaller edge, repeat on both sides.

• Resew the sides to ensure a tight seal between both pieces of fabric and the earpiece.

Guidance on masks also is posted on the Department of Health website.

Other comments by Wolf

Wolf also urged religious leaders to consider alternatives that don’t bring people together for the upcoming religious holidays, such as streaming online so congregants can watch from home.

“Congregants should be aware that even the most stringent prevention methods leave risks for spreading COVID-19, and religious leaders should avoid endangering their congregants,” Wolf said.

He also said he was “disappointed and ashamed as a Pennsylvanian” to hear that individuals have directed hate at fellow Pennsylvanians of Asian background because China is where the coronavirus originated.

“Pennsylvania is a commonwealth founded on tolerance. … No matter how stressful, frightening or chaotic this pandemic becomes, we cannot let COVID-19 take tolerance away from us,” he said.

He says he supports the State Police in pursuing hate crimes in these cases, and asked that Pennsylvanians take a stand against anti-Asian sentiments and report such cases to authorities.

“Hate is just one more symptom of this terrible disease,” he said.